From Nazi Germany to Shanghai to California, a story of Jewish success

Heinz Meyer fled Nazi Germany, and struggled his way to success through China, before establishing himself in the United States.

Henry (Heinz) Meyer outside Hamburger Henry, where he made gourmet hamburgers in the 1980s (photo credit: Courtesy)
Henry (Heinz) Meyer outside Hamburger Henry, where he made gourmet hamburgers in the 1980s
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On that summer day of 2019, the Jewish Refugee Museum in front of me loomed like an architectural and emotional treasure in old Shanghai. Soon, its dark rooms packed with testimonies spoke of the escape from Nazi Germany to China. The story of a survivor I interviewed a few years earlier suddenly came alive in these overpowering surroundings. I tried to recount his journey to the two Chinese doctoral female students who offered to guide my visit.
Heinz Meyer was born in Berlin on September 30, 1925, the elder of two brothers (Hans, born in 1933). In 1916, his father Erich had been drafted for two years of service in the army of the Kaiser and later became a salesman. Though his parents were assimilated, in our interview Meyer voiced memories of his grandfather “polishing his huge brass menorah,” the traditional Jewish candelabrum, and going to the synagogue on Fridays, Saturdays, and the High Holidays. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he remembered having returned home from the public school with a bloody nose after having been beaten up by his classmates on account of his being Jewish. He explains his parents’ decision to flee Germany: 
“With the ever-increasing repression and physical violence by the Nazis on members of the Jewish community, with new laws prohibiting Jews to be part of the general community and by further segregating Jewish daily life and activities, every effort was made by my parents to get out of Germany. As of August 17, 1938, Nazis required Jewish women to add the name ‘Sarah’ and the men add the name ‘Israel’ to all legal documents. I think the reason was that it enabled them to immediately recognize Jews by the additional name.”
Determined to leave Germany by any means, his parents decided to flee to Shanghai, the only place in the world to which no visa was needed. In July 1939 they escaped Germany by train to Trieste, traveling in the luggage car, while sitting on boxes, for the final part of the journey. When they arrived at Trieste, they found their ship, the Suwa Maru, awaiting them. The special passports held by the members of his family were stamped with a big red block letter “J” symbolizing the Jewish origin of the bearers. Twenty-one days after setting sail they arrived in Shanghai. Heinz recalled that it was much easier for him, as a fourteen-year-old, to get used to life in China in their small rented room than for his parents, who arrived penniless and had to fend for themselves to get meals. They also had to put up with a different environment and, in particular, with big flying cockroaches. Smells remain a long time in an individual’s memory, all the more as they are associated with an unpleasant and changing situation: “I understand that, in those days, it was customary for men to urinate in the gutter of the street, thus the awful stench. After observing all this, the four of us sat down and cried, trying to cope with the new and drastically different situation.”
The family could still receive their mail at the Shanghai Post Office. As his mother became very ill and needed lengthy hospitalization, they fortunately had friends, the Lehmanns, who provided the other three members of the family with one hot meal each day. Heinz decided to get a job; with the help of his uncle, who had escaped Germany via the Trans-Siberian Railway, he found work as a delivery boy at the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, the main source of information for about 18,000 Jews. Then he found a job at the Cathay Hotel in the Japanese section of Shanghai, until the memorable day of August 15, 1945, when all the Japanese were gone – the army, the ghetto guards, and the civilians.
In Shanghai, Meyer’s motivation to emigrate to the United States was developed through conversations with American hotel guests and from the American movies he watched. In his young adult mind, the American way of life could not be dissociated from the dream of owning a Cadillac automobile. A few years later, with his parents and brother, he obtained an affidavit from a family they knew and reached American shores under the quota for stateless persons. But 22-year-old Heinz traveled on his own to San Francisco, aboard the Marine Lynx, reaching the Golden Gate Bridge on April 17, 1947, after an 18-day journey. Upon disembarking, a reception committee of women of the San Francisco Jewish Committee, and more precisely from the “Club 1933,” welcomed the immigrants. One of the committee ladies handed Heinz dollars for the taxi fare and assigned him hotel accommodations. His American dream began with a taste of milk. Employed as an evening waiter in a hotel where he received generous tips, the tall blue-eyed Heinz – who by then called himself Henry – also worked as an usher at the opera house, “enjoying symphony music without cost.”
There was a network of German Jews, or some form of solidarity among Jews who had themselves been refugees in Shanghai: “I might mention here, that Henri and Werner Lewin, both from Shanghai, were very instrumental in giving many Shanghai emigrants start up jobs, at the Fairmont Hotel and later at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel.”
Always seeking new employment opportunities at a time when prosperity was making headway in the United States, Henry read the Aufbau, a German-Jewish immigrant newspaper through which he found a room for rent not far from the cable cars. He found a job in a cafeteria where he was soon promoted to manager. Simultaneously employed as a room service waiter in a prestigious hotel, Henry met the president of the Pontiac division of General Motors. This encounter with the Johnsons brought him some guidance:
“Serving them every morning, they got to know me, and were interested in my history and my desire someday to be employed in a management position in the hotel industry. They were willing and generously offered to pay for my tuition and expenses at Cornell University-Hotel and Restaurant School, a four-year college.”
Although Henry felt he could not accept such an offer, meeting them gave him an incentive to gain more education in the hotel industry. In the meantime, the tall and slender German-Jewish immigrant could not refuse being assigned to room service in several prestigious hotels where he was given brand new tuxedos when stars like Dorothy Lamour stayed there as guests. In the late 40s, as he was reunited with his family, he applied to study at the Hotel and Restaurant Division of San Francisco City College. He faced new difficulties, as he could not provide any former school records or graduation certificates. He took several tests which appeared to be most difficult for him. Finally, he was admitted through the help of the Cornell graduate Dean of the Hotel and Restaurant School. His chance meeting with the Johnsons, who had been willing to pay for his tuition at Cornell University, had paid off.
While going to college and working at nights and weekends as a waiter, he met Margot, a Jewish-American whom he was to marry in 1950. In the meantime, his parents had worked hard and bought, together with another couple, a dry-cleaning business which they operated in the Sunset district of San Francisco. In Santa Barbara, Henry was offered a position as catering manager at the Biltmore Hotel and soon worked his way up the ladder to be promoted to resident manager.
As movie stars visited the casino, Henry felt that his American dream was in the process of being fulfilled. In the early 50s, he decided to become independent and run a place he rented together with a friend. It was a restaurant, coffee shop, drive-in, and a ten-room motel, located, as Henry put it, a “stone’s throw” from the ocean on the Pacific Coast Highway, between Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. With the location being ideal and Henry and his friend being determined to succeed, the business went well until a landslide occurred at the end of the 1950s, as he recalled. Indeed, The Los Angeles Examiner reported the Palisade Landslide in 1958. Henry described the consequences engendered by such a phenomenon: “Our property suddenly was ‘miles’ from the ocean. The Pacific Coast Highway was closed from the Santa Monica Incline. That in effect was the end of our partnership and the end of Flagg’s By the Sea.”
Frustrated but undeterred, Henry looked again for a new job while his former partner opened a small restaurant on his own. The family still lived in Pacific Palisades, where he had bought a home. Looking for other job opportunities while reading the Los Angeles Times, Henry negotiated the purchase of a bar that opened only at night, leaving him the time, as he put it, to “develop [my] idea of a better hamburger.” He again sold their home and bought another one in Costa Mesa, thus displaying an American pattern of behavior and mobility that applied to both home and work.
In a small restaurant space in Costa Mesa, he operated Pier 11, where he inaugurated his idea of a specially baked bun for a better hamburger. It was well received, so he developed a catering business for trucks, for which Margot’s help was indispensable as she was required to work all night. Again, a major incident changed the course of Henry’s business career. He recounted the event that led to his new decision: “One afternoon, after Margot had worked all night, she fell asleep with a burning cigarette in her hand. Our son David was quick to act and a major disaster was averted. The next day I discontinued all catering activities.”
Somewhat later, while visiting Long Beach, he saw a “For Rent” sign and negotiated the lease with the Realtor. Henry thus developed a flourishing business based on a secret recipe for hand-made buns by a baker in Costa Mesa. In addition, he could rely on the loyalty and competence of longtime employees for over fifteen years. The former refugee and immigrant benefited from the postwar prosperity and the economic opportunities and social patterns offered in the United States, and California in particular.
In 1982, the House of Representatives honored Henry Meyer as the outgoing president of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. The social impact of the proprietor of the award-winning Long Beach restaurant “Hamburger Henry” was not only felt in the food business but as a past president of the Long Beach chapter of the California Restaurant Association. In 2005, he received the President’s Volunteer Service Award in recognition of his commitment to strengthening the American nation through his community service. Henry Mayer passed away in 2015, at age 89.
What Jewish values did he transmit to his four children of whose success he was proud? Among the recommendations he listed in his memoir, intended for his relatives, honoring one’s parents ranks first, as it does in the Jewish tradition. “Do some charitable work” is a piece of advice that corresponds to the American ethos that can also be linked to the Jewish injunction to give to charity, thus contributing to “repairing the world.” “Support the State of Israel” is another injunction he added to his list.
Upon finishing my visit of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, I heard voices saying Kaddish in the Ohel Moshe synagogue, adjacent to the museum – like a vibrant reminder of the thousands of refugees who could not make it.
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is Senior Research Associate at The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is: How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States, and Israel